Minutiae: The Positive Approach to Disability in Cronenberg’s Crash

This week saw the long overdue physical re-issue of David Cronenberg’s seminal 1996 film Crash via an extraordinarily lavish Arrow Video release. Replete with hours of extras, it will surely be the definitive release of the film. One of the hallmarks of a true cinematic great is it’s ability to reveal new things to you on every return journey. In revisiting this controversial but enduring favourite of mine, I found myself thinking a lot about not only Rosanna Arquette’s performance, but the material afforded her character, Gabrielle.

The film, based on J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel of the same name, focuses on a small group of Toronto inhabitants who are investigating the sexual possibilities of car accidents; an exploration of how fused we have become to the technology that surrounds us, and a dark preponderance on where this all might be headed. The piece works as a cold scrutiny of fixation and obsession by removing any truly relatable sense of empathy for the subject, but it also plays as a strangely liberated celebration of sexual exploration. 

Chiefly the film follows the different intersections of four protagonists; Ballard (James Spader), his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), the unassigned leader of their new enclave Vaughan (Elias Koteas), and Ballard’s recent surviving collision partner Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). It’s not until later on in the film that Gabrielle comes to the fore; a friend of Vaughan and Dr. Remington’s who has previously suffered acute injuries from her involvement in a car crash. 

Gabrielle uses crutches to walk, has a full leg-brace and appears to have customised an array of body supports into a kind of quasi-fetishistic costume that tessellates with her evolving tastes for the darkly erotic. Indeed, the outfit shows us a woman boldly externalising the internal and, in the process, showing no qualms about her physical disabilities. In fact, she has assimilated the changes to her body into her sexual identity, proudly displaying this in her choice of attire. Of the women in the film she is the most confident with this side of herself, compared to Catherine, who is the most tentative, and Dr Remington who often seems ‘over it’ or bored already. Gabrielle has fully incorporated her disability into her very functional new lifestyle.

In some East Asian territories the film was cut, particularly whenever the content focuses on Gabrielle’s role in the sexual encounters; sex with the disabled being thought of as taboo, with no place on a cinema screen. That may sound shocking, but things aren’t that much different in the West if we’re honest about it. There are rarely sexualised roles for disabled characters in our TV or cinema, if there are roles at all. Cronenberg’s film drew controversy for the perceived perversity of its subject in relation to car crashes, but one might argue that it was equally radical in its approach to disability, albeit in a far more positive sense.

On visiting a car showroom with Ballard, Gabrielle is openly aroused by the vehicles and unapologetically flirtatious with the rather square salesman. When one of the buckles on her braced leg catches in the upholstery of a car seat, there’s a fetishistic excitement in whether the buttoned-down man can free it without tearing the fabric. At the shreik of the rip, he makes a sound as though he’s just unloaded in his pants, and Gabrielle finds the entire incident delicious. This kind of gratification for such a character is almost unheard of.

Cronenberg pushes further. In one of the film’s most notorious scenes, Ballard and Gabrielle have sex in a car. Cronenberg maximises the discomfort of the confined space for Ballard, but for Gabrielle the scene is one of sheer ecstasy, up to and including the moment that Ballad tears the fishnet material away from the scar on her leg… and penetrates it. Cronenberg frames Gabrielle in close-up as she gives over wholly to the act. 

Now, in reality this would of course be ridiculous and immensely painful. But Crash takes place outside of the real world (as its delicately calibrated sound design reasserts). Like Ballard’s London-set book, it is more of a rigorous thought exercise. Only the foolish would take from this that Cronenberg thinks we should literally fuck the wounds of the disabled. No, it’s a continuation of the themes of driven desire, obsession and sexual synthesis that the piece as a whole investigates. So Gabrielle’s reaction in this moment isn’t a realistic one, but it is a radically positive one. She relishes the experience (crucially, all of the sexual couplings in Crash are consensual). 

Crash still has the power to provoke and perturb. That is its function. But it has many other facets to revel in. From Peter Suschitsky’s gliding, assembly-line photography to the aforementioned sound design which conjures things into being and then removes them. I’ve written about my love for the film before, but I don’t think I’d truly considered the importance of Gabrielle and what she represents until this recent revisit. Her passions might not be ours, but by granting her just as much credence as her able-bodied contemporaries, she points the way forward for other filmmakers to acknowledge and represent the fuller spectrum of human desire felt by all of us, regardless of our advantages or limitations. Now, nearly 25 years later, I can’t think of many who have taken what Cronenberg gave us here, and taken it further. 

Perhaps this re-release of Crash will stir some filmmakers into considering how we can better acknowledge the sexual credibility of our disabled contemporaries.

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